Western water leaders talk local solutions amid Colorado River crisis
Some water leaders in the West are working on local solutions as the Colorado River Basin faces historic drought. The Water Hub, a national organization centered on water justice, led a briefing with a team of panelists to talk about some of them.
“The river has been in the news and in the public eye … but a lot of that coverage has focused on the current crisis,” said Nicole Lampe, the managing director of the Water Hub. “But we know that interim solutions aren't enough to bring the basin back to health. That's why we've convened this great panel of expert practitioners to talk about the opportunity now, with billions in federal funding to rehydrate the landscape, with nature-based projects.”
All of the panelists had different approaches to share. One solution offered was human-created beaver dams.
“They're called the beaver dam analogs,” said Carina Bracer with the National Forest Foundation. “You insert it with little posts and then block it up with some twigs and branches. And eventually the beavers do return because the damming of the water behind our beaver dam analogs is what then allows the beavers to find secure habitat.”
Some states have already taken the initiative to fund and create solutions. Water for Colorado has a map on its website that outlines the variety of projects they’re working on, from snow forecasting in the Rio Grande Basin to removing deep-rooted plants in Southwest Colorado. The Nature Conservancy is working with Albuquerque, N.M., to add more native plants to clean rivers.
Panelist Felicia Marcus, who authored a nature-based solutions report at Stanford, believes that looking at the whole ecosystem will help out the river. She said Colorado and New Mexico have caught her eye.
“I think those are really important places to encourage and watch,” she said. “They've made noise. They have really good people who really want to do this … but it's going to need more support, I think, in order to really come to fruition.”
Catlow Shipek, another panelist, works with Watershed Management Group in Tucson. He advocated for more green infrastructure, which can be as simple as using natural features to restore floodwater plains and collect stormwater.
“So by increasing our investment in rainwater and stormwater as a water resource, we realize we can nearly double our local supplies,” Shipek said. “And then couple that with demand strategies, we can really start to achieve true water resilience as a community.”
His organization created a term called “hydro-local,” which refers to looking for solutions to use local water and rainwater instead of retrieving it from watersheds. The group has examples of what it's hoping to achieve on its website. Shipek said community stewardship is key.
“Having a collective, community centered approach is what I feel really helps to drive those simple, innovative and collaborative solutions instead of relying on large infrastructure, big technology,” he said.
Kern Collymore is the co-founder of Sixth World Solutions, a group centered around system-based solutions for Indigenous groups. He agrees that it’s important to always have frontline communities at the table when it comes to discussing solutions.
“It's time and time again where we don't see the resources going to the communities or to the people who are actually dealing and creating these solutions,” he said. “They come in with these funding resources, with these funding proposals, and they say they want community input. And then the application is like a 15 page thesis where you have to quote and cite. … You're asking for community input and then you ask these deep level type of questions.”
Back in October, the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which invested at least $4 billion across the Colorado River Basin for conservation and long-term system efficiency.
Some of these water leaders agreed that the government is taking needed steps, but still believe more has to be done locally to foster resilience and equity.
“As the crisis continues, our money will not equate to water. I don't care how much money we have, we're not going to be able to buy the water,” said Frank Ruiz from Audubon California. “So we need to learn how to take it comprehensively and create a model that can be more equitable.”
Ruiz argued that these solutions should have a multi-benefit approach that recognizes that the Colorado River Basin's ecological health is inseparable from the health of the communities that live there. He believes that education and research will help these ideas become a reality.
“I don't want to create environmentalists,” he said. “I want to create leaders that understand that the ecosystem is very intrinsically related to the economy, to public health.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.